I’ll never forget the first few weeks of motorcycle ownership—from the very first day when I stalled the motor and couldn’t get it to start, to the time I nearly dropped the bike because I thought the kickstand was down. Oh, and also my very first “long” ride with a friend who promptly led me through a hundred miles of pouring rain and biting wind. On Christmas day, no less.
I love it. Compared to a car, a motorcycle is uncomfortable, hot, “dangerous” and loud. It’s also freedom on two wheels, a machine that can take you places while allowing you to connect with the outdoors in a way that no automobile can. Here are the things I’ve learned so far about the riding life.
1. You have to be proactive and hyper-focused, but relaxed. Compared to the relaxing atmosphere of a car, a bike wakes up all your senses: the sound of the engine, the rumble of the tires, the movement of the suspension, and what you can see ahead of you and in your mirrors. You’re constantly monitoring the situation and scanning ahead for danger: Potholes, crossing dogs, even those steel joints on the expressway can cause a disaster if you run into them. Yet you also need to be relaxed so the bike will respond smoothly. After a long ride and I get home and shower, it’s lights out for me. The physical fatigue isn’t much, but the mental exhaustion is considerable.
2. If you have a cycling background—and know how to drive a stick—the transition isn’t that hard. Years of riding my road race bicycles in the local amateur scene gave me the confidence to take the plunge. As much as I wanted to enroll at the Honda Safety Driving Center, time and distance prevented me from signing up before I got the bike. Still, I figured if I just couldn’t hack it in my first month, I’d resign myself to a two-hour commute to HSDC and several days of the program just to come to grips with it. Remarkably, I realized that riding the motorcycle was just like riding my mountain bike, albeit 12 times heavier. I practiced first in the subdivision, away from traffic and any potential humiliation. Gradually, I went farther and farther out until I was confident enough to hit the highway or the mountains.
3. Sprain is temporary, but dropping the bike is forever embarrassing. Not to mention a pain in the ass. My first week with the bike, I sprained my wrists as I struggled mightily to keep the thing upright after a sudden stop. This was where I learned to ride as smoothly as possible, modulating braking between the front and the rear to prevent brake dive.
4. Kamote is real. Your first few rides, they’re annoying. These are the ones who ride erratically in traffic instead of going with the flow, who make dangerous maneuvers just to get ahead, and who rev the motor alongside you at stoplights because they want to race the big bike! Especially when they’ve got their girlfriend riding pillion. “Look, I’m faster than this guy on his big bike!” It didn’t take me long to realize it was pointless to bother with these jokers, so I just give them a cheery wave as they go off to their inevitable demise.
5. Damn, but that windblast is awesome scary. I love the aesthetics of standard bikes, but I do envy adventure bikes with their windscreens and upright positions, cruising effortlessly on the highway. Busy thoroughfares have a lot of turbulence that car drivers never notice, but on a bike it can be stressful. Just keeping the bike cruising on the highway is an exercise in relaxation and tucking in tight against the fuel tank. I’ll pick a car that’s going the speed I want, and then draft several lengths behind, slightly offset so I can see what’s ahead of him and ready to take evasive action if necessary.
You know that feeling when you’re about to do something, but a voice in your head tells you maybe it’s not such a good idea for the moment?
6. Keep honing your skills. The more you ride, the better you’ll get. After I’d gotten the basics, I focused on refining my shifting technique, timing the revs just right for smooth, clutchless shifting, countersteering, reading corners for the apex, modulating the throttle for a smooth and consistent entry and exit. When things improve after this coronavirus madness, I’ll get a track bike and hire a professional instructor to teach me the “Way of the Throttle.”
7. One is never enough. It’s true for bicycles, and it’s true for motorcycles. You can’t have just one. Even before I’d taken delivery of my Royal Enfield, I was already thinking of the next bike I’d save up for once my skill set had grown. There’s a bunch of great finds on the used market—lots of used Kawasakis and Hondas, and the rare Ducati or Triumph. I’ve got a café racer project in mind. Instagram has so many local, talented custom builders, it’s mind-blowing.
8. You learn to appreciate all kinds of motorcycles. While there is one kind of bike that’s the best fit for any given person based on his needs and budget, that doesn’t stop you from appreciating bikes big or small, manual or automatic. I can be in awe of the Kawasaki Ninja H2 R, yet still appreciate the technological goodness of a new kid on the block like the much more pedestrian Honda ADV150. If you happen to pass or get passed by another rider on a particularly nice bike, a simple thumbs-up or the universal ‘V’ sign is good etiquette.
9. Dress for the occasion. Helmet, gloves, jacket, pants and boots are the basic stuff. Armor up if you plan on going for particularly fast and long rides. Just the ritual of dressing up for the ride gets me in the right frame of mind. My terminal speed is inversely proportional to the level of protection I’m wearing.
10. When it doesn’t feel good, don’t. You know that feeling when you’re about to do something, but a voice in your head tells you maybe it’s not such a good idea for the moment? I’ve had to abort a ride several times because my gut didn’t feel right. On another ride with too many close calls, I decided to take a 10-minute stop at a gas station to calm down and reboot.
11. Choose your riding buddies well. There are dozens of riding clubs, mostly organized by what brand of bike they ride. But it’s like choosing your drinking buddies: You go with those you can genuinely get along and enjoy a good conversation with. I tend to ride with people who have different bikes than mine, but with whom I have other things in common. Besides, variety makes the group-ride photos more interesting.
12. Life is better appreciated on two wheels. A simple three- to four-hour Sunday ride enjoying the countryside, the company of friends, and the motorbike as an extension of your body is a pleasure that takes my mind off the stresses of my world.